Energy efficiency, damp and the dangers of confusing cause with effect

November 26, 2023

Tom Jarman, Environmental Sustainability Co-ordinator at SHIFT landlord Your Homes Newcastle, on why we need to be careful to point out the real reasons behind damp and mould.

In October, Inside Housing ran an article, ‘Rising Damp’, whose subtitle was the question ‘Is energy efficiency work creating damp problems for social tenants?’ To me this seemed like an odd lead-in to the article as the answer is obvious: poor design, planning, procurement and delivery will create significant problems, and that’s the case for any work irrespective of why you wish to carry it out.

To be fair, the article highlighted the issues with the way that ECO and its predecessors were structured. The tendency for ECO to focus on the immediate and short term, with the consequent potential for a poorly designed and risk-controlled project, has long been a concern.

My organisation, Your Homes Newcastle, have worked with CoRE, the Centre of Refurbishment Excellence, to bring their Retrofit Co-ordinator course to Newcastle. There are 8 of us on the course, 4 from YHN and 4 from a mix of other organisations. We are learning a huge amount, but what is coming through time and time again is that retrofit must be actively managed. As a client, if you rely on ECO funding to determine how you deliver, or BBA certificates to provide your quality assurance, then you may well be storing up problems for the future. This is the case with even what I would call standard retrofit projects, let alone more substantial, challenging projects.

Deep retrofit projects have much in common with more ambitious newbuild standards, as the only way to create homes that tenants can reasonably afford to comfortably heat. There are real challenges around funding, but some organisations such as Orbit and Viridian have taken the decision to invest significantly without relying on substantial external funding to determine their programme because driving out fuel poverty is the right thing to do. But there is also a challenge around delivery, and that is much more about taking a step back from business as normal and understanding how your investment programmes are going to deliver a step-change. Double-glazing, A-rated boilers and cavity and loft insulation are only ever going to get you so far. And what skills you need to acquire and develop so that the inherent strategic risk – unhealthy properties, HHSRS Category 1 failures, fabric damage, expensive remedial work – becomes a strategic opportunity; warm, comfortable homes offering an obvious rental choice, helping to create viable estates and supporting financial resilience.

To return to the question, then – is energy efficiency work creating damp?

The answer has to be emphatically ‘no’ – that is, if you accept undertaking energy efficiency retrofit is like any other walk of life where poor inputs lead to bad outcomes.

Here are some pertinent questions to ask: are your internal teams trained regarding building physics, moisture and ventilation control, and the risks of retrofit? Detailing needs to consider new and retained thermal bridges, and breaks in the airtightness and thermal envelopes – would you recognise missing or inadequate detailing? How are you procuring your supply chain and how is this helping them develop skills and best practice? What pre- and post-work testing do you specify? Where do pre-remedials sit in your project plan? How are you going to ensure proper implementation on site? Do you have an airtightness and thermal efficiency site champion?

These are the areas where concern should be focussed – and those that want to see more healthy and warm homes should be vocal in pointing this out if we want to ensure that energy efficiency per se does not end up as the villain of the peace.

Daniel Navarro